May 27, 2019

Israeli team brews beer from 3,000-year-old yeast strain

At first I thought I had walked into a press conference where President Trump was announcing his peace plan for the Middle East.

"If you promise them beer, they will come":
Dr. Ronen Hazan (right) introduces the
ancient yeast project to the press.

(Photo: Mike Horton)
Dozens of journalists and photographers were jockeying for position to get a better view of the speakers.  Interviewers were getting physical while fending off attempts by other journalists to steal away their interviewees. 

But the subject wasn't peace.  It was beer, which probably generates greater interest around the world these days.  The restaurant area of Beerateinu, the Jerusalem Beer Center, was packed  -- for what journalist or news organization could resist the promise to hear about a 5,000-year-old beer that has been resurrected -- and to actually taste it?

The real story, however, is much more prosaic than the perfervid headlines that grew out of it.  This was not "the beer that the Pharaohs (or Cleopatra or Goliath) drank."  Scientifically, however, it's just as stunning.

Tzemach Aouizerat (right) and the old blogger
come close to some of the ancient vessels
which contained the yeast spores.

(Photo: Mike Horton)
An Israeli team of archaeologists, biologists and brewers had succeeded in isolating and cultivating yeast spores found in the pores of ancient ceramic vessels.  ("Spores in the Pores" would be a good name for the beer.)  Six different yeast strains were isolated from 21 shards of pottery found in four different archaeological sites throughout Israel.

Tzemach Aouizerat is the MA student in microbiology who was given the task of finding the yeast colonies, revitalizing them after millennium of slumber, nurturing them, and sequencing their DNA (genome).  Quite a piece of work.

When the cultures were analyzed, it was found that the yeast was authentic, that is, actually used in brewing and not just pollution from the environment.  In fact, one of the yeast strains found in pots from the Philistine site at Tel es-Safi (the biblical city of Gath) is still used today to brew native sorghum beer in Zimbabwe.

Prof. Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University
demonstrates how beer was poured from an
ancient Philistine beer jug.

(Photo: Mike Horton)
Next, beers were brewed using a few of the resurrected yeast strains.  Leading this project was Itai Gutman, the former founder and partner of Herzl Brewery in Jerusalem, now residing in Germany.  A team of certified beer judges led by Shmuel Naky, one of the partners of Beerateinu, completed the work by tasting and giving the final beers their stamp of approval. 

There was no attempt to use other "original ingredients" for the grains or the flavoring.  We know that the Egyptians, Philistines and others used a wide range of flavorings for their beer, including honey, different fruits, plants and herbs.  But for these recreated beers, modern hops and wheat malt were used -- a true anachronism since hops originated in Europe about the 11th century CE.

Shmuel Naky of Beerateinu
(The Jerusalem Beer Center)
pours the beer made from ancient yeast
for the thirsty journalists and photographers.

(Photo: Mike Horton)
It was not much of a surprise, therefore, that the beer which was poured for the journalists and guests tasted very much like a modern wheat beer.  Mild, slightly spicy, sweet and fruity, drinkable and refreshing.

I could play the cynic and retell the story of the curator who showed me the hatchet that George Washington used to chop down the famous cherry tree.  "It's the original hatchet," he proclaimed.  "It's only had three new heads and two new handles since Washington used it."

But let's not overlook the very positive aspect: Revitalizing the yeast and using it to actually brew beer was a step forward in "experimental archaeology" -- a field that seeks to reconstruct the past.  Dr. Ronen Hazan, a microbiologist at the Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Dental Medicine and one of the initiators of this project, said, "Our research offers new tools to examine ancient methods, and enables us to taste the flavors of the past."

The old blogger raises a toast with
archaeologist Dr. Aharon Greener
with the ancient yeast new beer.

(Photo: Mike Horton)
Dr. Yitzchak Paz of the Israel Antiquities Authority added that this experiment was a real "breakthrough."  "This is the first time we succeeded in producing ancient alcohol from ancient yeast.  In other words, from the original substances from which alcohol was produced.  This has never been done before."

And Prof. Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University's Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology, summed it up by proclaiming, "Make no mistake about it.  This is a fantastic find!"

Even if it wasn't the same beer that warmed the heart of the Pharaohs, Cleopatra or Goliath.


  1. Very exciting. Beer and wine, from Biblical times.

  2. Best write up on this ... thx for clarity and further info not shared elsewhere

    1. Thank you. I appreciate that very much.


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